By Amet Ngallan
My recent round trip out of and return to The Gambia via the airport exposed a troubling state of affairs concerning a traveller’s right to privacy and the right to not be fleeced (swindled).
The first invasion of privacy, if one is traveling via Brussels, is the rule that all passengers complete the Belgian Public Health Passenger Locator Form and have a barcode image stored on a mobile to prove it. This is said to enable authorities there to track you if are suspected of having been exposed to corona. You might be followed because of other suspicions, too. Who knows?
The next assault, coming from a weapon installed by The Gambia government a few years ago at the airport, occurs during exposure to the Securiport scan of your 10-digits, face and eyeball. These details about you are probably merged with other data Gambia Immigration has about you. This digital data is stored in one or more databases, located somewhere (probably in the ‘Cloud’), reachable only by Gambian authorities, we are told.
Securiport, the Washington DC company (of course) managing this scheme, says Gambian authorities who are trained to use their ‘Advanced Threat Analysis’ and ‘Advance Passenger Information’ software are able to identify known and potential troublemakers, thereby keeping the airport and immigration safe. Keeping immigration safe? It makes sense to check out arriving travellers, but is it in The Gambia’s interest to examine those on their way out, other than collect some cash? A government should be relieved that a terrorist, a drug dealer, a fugitive or someone with a bogus passport has exited the country. A simple ‘goodbye and don’t come back’ would do, and cost travellers nothing. What they are doing is known elsewhere as a ‘shakedown’, but disguised here as a vital security programme.
The company’s advertising offers reassurances that personal data is secure … “Securiport does not operate the installed systems or have access to government data. All data is encrypted and only the client has the keys to decode it, preventing any external party from unauthorised access”. The slippery words here are ‘unauthorised access’, which allows the possibility that authorized outsiders can access the data.
What is said to be Gambian computers and databases running Securiport’s software need to communicate with other computers, perhaps some belonging to Securiport or their other customers, in order to do the ‘big data’ mining and ‘connect the dots’ analysis. Data mining would be of little value if the only databases queried are those controlled by Gambian Immigration. This suggests that a traveler’s personal data collected at the airport is reachable by others, like some Securiport customers in Senegal, Central Africa Republic, Sierra Leone, Mali, Ivory Coast, Equatorial Guinea and Singapore to name a few. Interpol is among the culprits according to the company’s press releases. If this system works as advertised, it might be worth something that Gambia is tipped off when Yahya Jammeh leaves Equatorial Guinea via their airport.
As for the big players in the security and intelligence universe, well, according to the exiled, former National Security Agency (NSA-USA) analyst Edward Snowden, the NSA intercepts whatever digital data they want, either in transit real-time or stored in a computer somewhere, without permission and without anyone knowing about it. Criminally inclined hackers are doing the same, but they offer for sale the data they steal. A few years ago Facebook was caught selling profiles of 50 million users to Cambridge Analytica for one million dollars.
We should not be surprised to learn, someday soon, that our personal data, travel history and everything else being ‘mined’ about us has been exploited by others. Exposure of your mobile number and a few bytes of your personal information could lead you to become a victim of ‘sim swapping’ – all digital traffic meant for your mobile goes to the criminal’s mobile, leaving your mobile comatose and possibly your mobile-linked bank account emptied.
Add to these worrisome assaults is the irony of the payment scheme. Everyone passing through the airport here pays collectors wearing Securiport uniforms US$20 or D1,000 for the privilege of allowing others to ‘mine’ (as in dig through) their personal data to uncover otherwise hidden connections.
Minister of Finance Mambury Njie recently revealed that during 2020 tourist arrivals at the airport fell 62% to 88,232. That means 142,310 tourists arrived at the airport in 2019, most of whom likely departed through the airport too. That number would generate US$5,692,400 (D290.3 million) in security fees. Add to that the unknown number of travellers not counted as tourists.
What is The Gambia’s cut of that pie? The January 2021 IMF Country Report No. 21/25 The Gambia, Item #51 under Business Climate says: “Separately, arrears to Securiport (US$4.4 million) that have been accumulated under the contract signed in 2018, will be cleared progressively by drawing on the government share (25 percent) in the proceeds from the airport security fee (US$20 per passenger). Discussions are under way on the modalities to fund the airport security services with a minimal impact on passengers in order not to discourage tourism.” So, in addition to Securiport’s 75% cut, the company seeks to collect even more rent from the government for using their system. It smells almost as bad as the Semlex deal The Gambia is burdened with. And the government is US$4 million in ‘arrears’? No wonder investors are afraid to invest here.
Securiport probably makes others pay for mining the data they (oops, Gambian Immigration) collects here. If so, Securiport makes money on both ends. Collectors of personal data understand it is an asset worth money. But our payments to Securiport are backwards. Take, for example, WorldCoin, a new crypto-currency company located in a more sensible part of the world. They pay customers for their eyeball scan.
Despite the claim of improved, high tech security at the Yundum airport, a US air carrier with connecting flights from Brussels does not accept any boarding pass issued by Brussels Airlines in The Gambia. That airline tears them up and performs their own passenger security check. What does that imply about the value of Securiport? The answer to that might be the fact that The Gambia has added another layer of protection, one provided by Afro-Euro Airline Security Services (AEASS), a Gambian airport security company. Fortunately, they are not charging travellers for their services. At least not yet.
Over and out.